2016-06-30
A few weeks ago I was driving my 12-year-old daughter's car pool to her middle school. As I was pulling up to the curb to drop the kids off, the car in front of us was being aggressively moved on by the traffic monitor, even though there were only two cars on the street. The driver of the car was complaining that one of the children had forgotten something. On the car was affixed a bumper sticker that read, "Question Authority."

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"I guess the driver questions the authority of traffic regulations," my daughter commented. Her friends giggled and hooted.

It struck me as ironic that about six months ago one of this group of laughing adolescents had emailed me to discuss Korah, the Torah portion that he would read and explain on the Shabbat--now this coming Shabbat--he would become a Bar Mitzvah. The portion recounts a rebellion by Korah, a tribal chief, against the leadership of Moses while the Jews are wandering in the Sinai Desert. One might say that its underlying theme is about the appropriate time to question authority.

"Rabbi Jane," this young man wrote, "I hope you won't be unhappy with me, but I think that Korah is right to challenge Moses. Moses was pushing everyone around. Why did God side with Moses and not Korah?"

I could see this boy's point. It is easy to sympathize with Korah. Korah's justification for rebellion seems consistent with Jewish theology. Korah maintains, "All of the community is holy and Adonai is among them"(Num. 16:3), and that Moses is thus wrong in setting himself above everyone else. Nor is Korah a disgruntled loner, a biblical Ted Kaczynski. He persuades fully 250 leaders of the community, men with good reputations, to join him.

We know that Moses isn't a perfect leader. Moses makes many mistakes over the course of his life. As a youth he kills an Egyptian guard and must flee for safety (Ex. 2:11-14). When he becomes the head of the Hebrew nation, he is poor at delegating responsibility (Ex. 18:13-16). Moses cannot restrain himself from embellishing God's command to provide water for the people by speaking to a stone, and instead strikes the stone (Num. 20:8-9). Frankly, the Torah presents Moses as a fairly willful, driven, authoritarian sort of person.

Contemporary American Jews are usually comfortable questioning this kind of authority for a number of reasons. Americans, in general, tend to be suspicious of those in power, and American culture idealizes Jeffersonian democratic values. Jewish Americans tend to believe in American social norms.

Politically, American Jews belong to a minority group. We don't feel entirely like insiders in this society. We tend to sympathize with the marginalized and underprivileged. The overwhelming majority of American Jews are only a generation or two removed from the experience of fleeing a totalitarian regime.

Religiously, our Jewish practice and institutions are relatively non-hierarchal. Jews don't have a pope or other supreme religious authority. Lay leaders, rabbis, and the average Jew in the street disagree on all sorts of matters, so much so that there is a classic Jewish saying, "Two Jews, three opinions." Intellectual questioning is not only tolerated; it is encouraged.

What then do I respond to my youthful correspondent and his natural question?

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The problem with Korah is not so much that he disagrees with Moses as the circumstances surrounding his rebellion. Is this the right time and manner for Korah to question Moses' authority? The situation is politically and socially unstable. The ancient Hebrew society is in a state of near chaos. It has no age-old institutions that contain and civilize measured policy disagreement. This is a war zone filled with disenfranchised refugees.

Moses has managed to lead the group out of slavery, to elude the mighty Egyptian army, to provide food and water in the desert, to establish a judicial system, and to promulgate a set of ethical and moral norms. Could Korah do as much? Or would the alternative be even more chaotic?

The Torah teaches that merely having a different perspective is not the problem. Our text provides us with an example of appropriate expressions of disagreement earlier in the saga of wanderings in the Sinai. In Exodus 18, Yitro, like Korah, has concerns about the way Moses is running things. However unlike Korah, Yitro doesn't publicly confront Moses; he doesn't organize other people to undermine Moses. Yitro comes to Moses as a friend. He gently explains that a good leader learns to delegate authority and to share power. Moses listens to Yitro and resolves the problem.

Sometimes we American Jews who are comfortable openly questioning authority do not fully appreciate that we do so in a particular context. Though there are painful consequences to ignoring despotism, there are often equally painful costs to undermining authority.

No governing power is perfect, from the local PTA chairperson to the President. Some authorities--Castro in Cuba, the warlords of the Sudan--are quite imperfect. But is the alternative a better one? Many times, though not always, it is better to work with an imperfect governing system. One of the most difficult ethical decisions to make is when it is appropriate to

publicly question authority. The Torah teaches us that Korah's impulse toward organizing rebellion and public confrontation was not right for the circumstances. We must sometimes temper our prophetic sensibilities, and look to the larger context.

This is not to say that questioning authority is always wrong. Moses himself confronts Pharoah and disrupts Egyptian social harmony. The difference between Korah and Moses is subtle indeed. In each such situation, I must always ask myself, what is my purpose in this disagreement, and what do I hope to accomplish. Is this for my ego or is there a greater moral purpose here? What are the consequences of my action? Because sometimes it is right to express dissent, and sometimes it makes more sense to work with the authority figure, even an overly zealous traffic monitor.

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